It is early May on the South Coast with a forecast of a light southeast wind and high pressure bringing sun. Prime conditions for pushing northward migrating Pomarine Skuas close into the Sussex coast.
In Sussex, from Selsey Bill in the west to Beachy Head in the east, birders listen intently to the local weather forecast at this time of year and if southeast winds are predicted any suitable watchpoint will receive its complement of birders eager to seize the chance to watch the moving spectacle of visible migration on a grand scale with hopefully the crowning glory of Pomarine Skuas en masse migrating from their wintering areas off West Africa to their breeding areas in Arctic Russia.
In the early hours of Bank Holiday Monday morning the Black Audi left Kingham and traversed the sequence of Motorways south to Seaford in East Sussex, my chosen and regular seawatching location. Cruising down the deserted and dark motorways my tiredness was soon forgotten and my mind soothed through the night as I listened to a gentle background of classical music from Radio Three. These long night drives are for me always a period of introspection and reflection on my life. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good.
As I drove, my mind mulled over the huge risk I was taking yet again. Twice in the last two weeks when weather conditions had appeared suitable I had made the long journey to Seaford only to be frustrated and confounded by the wind not being in the direction from whence it had been predicted.
However this time I had been scrupulous in checking the local forecast right up to the very last moment before, at two in the morning I departed Oxfordshire. The inshore coastal forecast predicted southeast winds Force 3-4 all day with sun. It could not be better. It was now or never. Could it be third time lucky?
At five in the morning, with dawn already well and truly in evidence I was alone, sitting on the breakwater at Splash Point, Seaford staring at a sea devoid of birds except for Kittiwakes from the colony on Seaford Head, just off to my left. The first doubts were beginning to form. Had I got it wrong again? The Kittiwakes harsh calls almost mocked me as they flew back and fore, out to sea and back to their nests on the white cliffs. Herring Gulls brazenly continued to spread trash over the deserted promenade as they raided the overfull litter bins.
I was soon joined by some of the other Seaford regulars, Richard and John, and some irregulars such as Julian visiting from Norfolk and Tony making his annual visit. It was, however, not looking good as one could see for miles out to sea when the forecast had suggested that the conditions would bring the slight haze and reduced visibility that is usually the precursor to the appearance of Poms. A couple of Gannets planed past, low over the sea, shining white in the early morning sun that was just rising from behind the towering mass of Seaford Head. Small flocks of Common Scoter hurried past - one minute they were compact little groups, distinctive in their hurried bunched appearance as it appears each bird is trying to overtake the leader then the next minute they are strung out in a long line. It is always difficult to count them as the flock constantly changes shape, contracting and elongating. A few Whimbrel departing their roost on the beach, twittered evocatively as they rose high in the sky heading East and two Common Sandpipers detached themselves from three eastbound Sanderling and calling loudly made landfall on the concrete groyne to our left.
An hour passed. Enough birds, just, to keep some interest but not a sign of a skua. Tony sitting to my left eventually picked up the first skua coming in from the west. Bated breath, hopes raised for a moment, wishful thinking instilled a few doubts about identification but as it drew nearer it became obvious it was a pale phase Arctic Skua. Oh well! We put a brave face on it. At least it was a skua. Maybe this would presage an improvement? Scoter flocks continued passing but there was not a sign of any terns apart from a trio of Sandwich Terns. This was not a good omen. Four Shelduck flew by and a small flock of Sanderling flew fast and low over the sea, close to the shoreline.
Seated in the front row, a benefit of my early arrival, I turned and was surprised at the numbers of birders that had already built up behind us so early in the morning, presumably in expectation of a 'big day'. There was hardly room to stand. Simon, a regular, arrived relatively late and had to retreat to sit on the beach due to the throng and others sought out seats further back on the seafront. The time dragged on with not a lot to show for it. Some of the less enthusiastic birders eventually got fed up and left to go and seek migrants on Seaford Head.
I remained, stoic and determined, expectant, reassured in the company of Richard and John, similar minded colleagues. I just had that innate feeling the conditions were absolutely right and my timing was correct. I cannot point to any firm fact but just that I was relying on all my experiences from years of seawatching off this part of the Sussex coast. I was gambling but the odds were surely on my side? It had to come good. I just knew it would. Time continued to pass slowly until it reached almost eight in the morning, three hours had passed and still nothing much had really appeared except regular flocks of scoter and occasional waders. Then another skua was called and in perfect light a pale phase Pomarine Skua cruised past, beautifully lit in the gentle early morning light and the mood of everyone noticeably improved. Then as is often the way our optimism took a nose dive as nothing more happened. Was it going to be another one Pom day or would there be more? It was now very much in the balance.
Another hour passed then a single Pom arrived. It was another pale phase and gave all of us another exceptional view. From Seaford, which faces south, it is always best to see Poms and any other migrating seabirds in the morning light as by lunchtime the sun is directly facing you and thus reducing visibility so that birds just become shapes in the glare of sunlight. I remarked to Richard that the ultimate Pom experience for me is to see a flock of these awesome, charismatic birds. My hopes were not to be realised in the immediate future as just another two single Poms were all that passed by in the next half an hour.
Then the hopes, expectations, dreams, call them what you may and all borne on unfounded optimism magically started to come true. The day changed forever at nine thirty in the morning, precisely four and a half hours after my arrival at Seaford when a flock, yes a flock, of nine Poms appeared, really close in and steadily moving East. I cannot adequately describe the surge of adrenalin, the sheer thrill as the dream comes true. At first they appear as dark shapes off to the west. First one is seen then more and more come into view, following each other, often with one lagging someway behind the others, spreading out across the sea but always in loose formation, rolling and gliding along the wave troughs.They look incredibly dark against the sea. Absolutely distinctive. Quite unmistakeable.
The flock constantly changed in shape as the birds moved powerfully East. Their flight action is heavier than an Arctic Skua but still graceful. Power and strength consolidated into a surprising speed and sense of purpose over the sea. It is a heady mix for those of us who have come to pay homage. At one point they turned on a passing Kittiwake and gave desultory chase high into the sky, belying their bulk as they almost turned cartwheel in pursuit of the unfortunate bird but then broke off and returned to sea level to regroup and move inexorably onwards to the East The views were truly exceptional. The light perfectly highlighted their plumage, so much so that it was possible to discern the differences in the plumage of individual birds, pristine white below, dark brown above, some totally without breast bands indicating their full adult male status and the sub adult birds still with much scruffier buff and barred underparts. The adult male's long, slightly drooping central tail feathers with the iconic spoons at the end stood out clearly whilst others lacked these altogether or had less obvious spoon tails .
You just do not want this kind of experience to end but it is over all too soon and the flock is gone. Now you just want more and more. Like a drug it consumes and you develope a Pom dependency This is what you have come for. This is what you have waited for. The hope's of a year's anticipation are now reality but in a bitter sweet twist are gone almost as soon as they have been realised.
One of the benefits of modern technology and the fact that birders are ranged all along the south coast to the west is that instant communication can now keep you informed of what is happening birdwise. John's pager duly informed us that fourteen Poms had just passed Selsey. It takes around eighty minutes for them to travel the distance from Selsey to Seaford. We sat back expectant and happy. It was truly happening. This was going to be the 'big Pom day'.
And so it transpired. The pagers regularly updated us on continuing movements of Poms all heading our way from as far west as Portland Bill in Dorset
I cannot, nor do I want to list here every occurrence of Poms on this day at Seaford but we sat it out for fifteen hours as they were passing at approximately thirty minute intervals all day long. The biggest flocks were one of eleven, three flocks of ten, one of nine and one of seven. Smaller numbers also came through, singles, two's and three's, four and five. Just as good but never quite as thrilling as the larger flocks
I personally noted the much rarer all black phase on four occasions. One of these particularly stood out as it was so close and I will not easily forget the sun reflecting off its black wings with the distinctive white flashes and the long tail with huge spoons at the tip.Wonderful.
No one dared leave their seat in case they missed some Poms. In an apparently quiet spell I took a chance and went to the car, ever so briefly, only to return to be told I had within seconds missed two Poms which had recently passed. I just managed to catch a distant sight of them as they mugged a gull off Seaford Head. Phew! My notebook by now was a complete mess as I struggled to log all the Poms as well as everything else that was passing. Somehow I just about managed to cram everything into the pages.
By late afternoon all sorts of personal inconsequential records were being broken. I reached a minor milestone when, in the late afternoon I passed the figure of one thousand Poms seen by me from the Sussex coast, over more years than I care to remember. I also broke my existing day record of one hundred and fourteen by seeing on this day a total of one hundred and thirty one. Richard too broke his day record by seeing well over a hundred and twenty as did John. Liam whose seawatching career has only just started, managed to see over one hundred despite going home for tea and then returning. Matt managed eighty six in just the afternoon and evening, Everywhere it was just phenomenal what was happening.
The ongoing experiences and the adrenalin rush each time Poms appeared blurred my mind and it became almost impossible to recall each encounter due to the ensuing tiredness, excitement and constant passage of not just Poms but other birds as well.
A flock of over one hundred Common Scoter with a lone Velvet Scoter at the very tail end of the flock was another notable moment as was a drake Mandarin Duck flying east, close to the shore in the early morning. A Great Northern Diver leading a distinctly smaller Red throated Diver low over the sea, trios of summer plumaged Black throated Divers high in the sky, spaced well apart. Little Gulls, more like terns than gulls with their distinctive rounded wing tips and delicate, demure flight action. All these experiences and a myriad more filled my memory to overflowing and as word got out that the Poms were 'on the move' a constant procession of birders joined us on the breakwater. Normally by lunchtime the breakwater is deserted and I have the place to myself. Not today.
The hours passed almost un-noticed apart from the passage of the sun which shone increasingly hot turning the sea into a shining, shimmering white with the sun flashing in constantly changing mirror angles off the waves and wearying my eyes. The gentle onrush of waves and rattling of pebbles on the beach each time the surf retreated competed with the constant cries of the Kittiwakes that went on ceaselessly all day. A rhythm that was sub consciously always with you but never obtrusive.
The world carried on its business behind us on the promenade as the café did a roaring trade and 'normal' folk enjoyed their Bank Holiday promenading along by the sea or sunbathing on the beach. Vaguely aware of all this carrying on behind us we were alone on our breakwater jutting out into a world of birds and sea. We tried to concentrate on the matter in hand despite a constant procession of people walking out to enquire what we were up to. Some genuinely interested others with smart ass remarks. We were unfailingly polite despite the regular unwelcome interruptions to our concentration.
Constant scanning. Constant awareness. You cannot do this on your own for hours on end. You need the help of others as inevitably you will miss birds and indeed even when a bird was called sometimes I just could not see it or find it. Age and tired eyes slowed and frustrated me but I was philosophical. Simon and Matt with their exceptional eyesight got me onto most things but I also missed distant terns and waders which were beyond my physical capabilities
|l to r Matt Eade, Simon Linington, John King and Richard Fairbank. All bar|
Matt maintained a day long vigil with me and without their company I would
have seen a lot fewer birds and enjoyed the day much less
The highlight of the terns for me were the numbers of Little Terns. I have never seen so many of this delightful species in one day - no less than eighty five. Impossibly dainty and chic with a proportionately enormous yellow bill they are like small children delighting in their natural element of sky and sea. Passing close in they call to one another, diving into the sea as they pass to seize a small fish and then calling excitedly as they chase to catch up with their companions.
Five in the morning to eight in the evening. Fifteen hours. Exhausted yes. Tired yes but impossibly happy at an experience that I doubt will ever be equalled in my lifetime. It all happened. It truly did and I will never ever forget it
|I am tired but happy towards the end of a long but hugely rewarding day|
Pomarine Skua 131 including a flock of 11, three flocks of 10, one flock of 9 and one of 7
Arctic Skua 34
Great Skua 1
skua sp 1
Northern Gannet 27
Little Gull 24
Mediterranean Gull 1
Black headed Gull 32
Sandwich Tern 131
Commic Tern 808
Common Tern 15
Arctic Tern 12
Little Tern 85
Black Tern 1
diver sp 13
Great Northern Diver 1
Black throated Diver 14
Red throated Diver 2
Great Crested Grebe 2
Dark bellied Brent Goose 8
Common Shelduck 8
Common Scoter 921
Velvet Scoter 1
Mandarin Duck 1
Eurasian Teal 3
Eurasian Curlew 1
Bar tailed Godwit 80
Grey Plover 2
Common Sandpiper 3 in off the sea
wader sp 4
Auk sp 21
Swallow 3 in off the sea